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Wrap It Up…Not So Fast!

2009 March 12

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

In our everyday day lives, we pride ourselves in doing everything faster, better, and more efficiently. However what has become convenient has also resulted in some unforeseen costs. In this case, I’m thinking about fast food and, especially, fast food packaging.

Whether at work or play, we encourage everyone to eat their food in reusable utensils and if possible aim for a waste free lunch. However, the truth is having a sit down meal at home is not always possible. When it comes to eating, frequently we just look for the nearest fast food restaurant, carryout or drive thru. And then we dispose of the waste in the nearest trash can. While I can see using our reusable mugs at the local coffee shop, taking reusable plates to a drive thru may not be practical for most people.

Some might have noticed that not so long ago, most of the common fast food chains used polystyrene foam (AKA Styrofoam) and non-environmentally friendly packaging to serve and wrap food and beverages. In recent years, responding to popular pressure, some companies are adopting waste reduction measures and using biodegradable packaging. More and more companies are actively engaged in the redesign of sustainable packaging. In fact, EPA is a founding member of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a group of industry professionals formed in 2004. This broad coalition goes beyond the food packing industry. It provides a framework for collaborating on various sustainable packaging issues in order to reduce the environmental footprint of packaging. Bear in mind that the environmental impacts of packaging go beyond what enters the waste stream. There are energy impacts and associated greenhouse gas emissions at each stage of the life cycle of each product from extraction and acquisition of raw materials, manufacturing of raw materials into products, the actual product used by consumers and ultimately, product disposal.

EPA’s WasteWise partnership program also highlights success stories in the areas of food processing and packaging as well as the beverage industry.

So, if you’re seeking more information on the environmental sustainability techniques used by your favorite restaurant or nearest fast food establishment, you can visit for a Restaurant Report Card. Above all—get involved. You can make a difference in encouraging many industries and the general public to become more environmentally sustainable.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. Brian Clampitt permalink
    March 12, 2009

    When I worked at a local movie rental store, we started a policy of handing movies to people rather than using bags (unless they have several movies). We ended up saving money and helping the environment. I was always impressed when customers would come in with old plastic bags to use.

    Now there has been an increase in supermarkets selling reusable cloth bags for groceries. It is great to see more and more people pay attention to the ways they can reduce waste.

    From a psychological perspective, less wrapping gives us a feeling of more personal interaction. Plastic bags in a way sterilize us, making us feel a complete split between what is ours (in the bag) and the outside world. Handing a specific DVD directly to a customer felt quite different than giving them a descriptionless bag.

  2. Linda permalink
    March 13, 2009

    While I do eat lunch out of the office frequently (it’s nice to escape from the office for a while), my coworkers and I tend to patronize small establishments that use washable plates, tableware, and glasses. When we do visit places that use paper and bags, we try to pick those that do not over-wrap the food. Thanks for providing a link to make this even easier.

    On the reusable bag front, I’m learning to take one of my bags with me into almost any store: hardware, grocery, pet supplies, books; you name it, the bags can handle it. I’ve even co-opted one as my “gym” bag–I love the wide open top and no fumbling with a zipper.

  3. Jamie Feldman permalink
    March 13, 2009

    I wonder how much more cost effective and environmentally friendly it would be to have more recycled packaging from fast food chains. I am sure there have been studies on this topic, but it seems strange that prevalent chains don’t participate in a program that uses recyclable packaging. I feel that this would be beneficial to the environment, as well as provide the fast food industries with a new marketing technique targeting the new “go green” attitude.

    When a customer orders food from a drive thru, there are always those garbage cans placed strategically just after the person picks up their food from the window. Typically, my family collects waste from the car (usually old fast food packaging) and throws it into the trash. Perhaps there could be a few extra bins located in the same strategic place that would allow for customers to recycle their old packaging (that is now labeled properly and easily for them to know which bin to put it in); maybe there is something that these companies could do including color coding so that consumers have a better understanding of how to recycle their unwanted waste. This is just some food for thought, pun intended.

  4. Lina-EPA permalink*
    March 13, 2009

    I like your food for though–pun included. :-) ‘Having additional bins is a good idea provided the wrappings are recyclable. Hopefully new technology will make that easier. Saw an article recently on the debate over recycling pizza boxes. That’s another area that needs improvement.

  5. Zahra permalink
    March 14, 2009

    I believe that we need to take serious measures to ensure that fast food chains employ recycling at their best. Also since pizza is a popular food among many, recycling the boxes will make a big difference. We all individually need to take actions in not supporting restaurants that do not use recyclable materials. I personally refuse to eat or takeout food from restaurants that use Styrofoam. With that saying, I hope that many people realize that we are endangering the environment not only for ourselves but also for our future generations by not caring; therefore, we should start educating and learning about different ways to be as environmental friendly as we can.

  6. Sylvia Y. permalink
    March 17, 2009

    It’s great government agencies such as the EPA are so avid in their pursuit of environmental protection. From a business perspective, the pressures for reduced packaging and the use of more biodegradable materials has saved companies millions of dollars every year. Most products have seen recognizable decreases in packaging in the past five years. There are definitely still many changes businesses can make to reduce their overall negative impact on the environment, but the movement has definitely started. I feel like now the consumer has the bigger responsibility in the waste reduction cycle. It’s so easy to sit back and point the finger at the manufacturer. If more initiatives were taken to get the average citizen to care and recycle, we could expedite the speed at which we saw change in wasteful operations procedures.

  7. Sara E. permalink
    March 23, 2009

    In the last few years, I have seen a great increase in the recycling that has occurred at stores as well as restaurants. More and more groceries sell reusable bags that when used give the shopper a discount on their purchase. This is a great way to cut back on waste and be more efficient with our consumption. It is great to see these efforts making a difference.

    On the flip side, I worked for a coffee company in multiple locations and the amount of recyclables that were thrown away was incredible. When I inquired as to why we were discarding approximately 75 empty milk gallons a day, in addition to other plastics, I was told that paying for a recycling service was too expensive. Realizing that there are thousands of coffee shops that use this many and more gallons of milk a day, it amazes me how much material is thrown away around the country every day. I believe there should be a greater initiative to encourage local and chain restaurants to recycle the materials they do have to use.

  8. Dinesh Thiru permalink
    August 16, 2010

    I’ve actually seen a lot of strides foward in just the last few months when it comes to restaurants and food service companies using more environmentally friendly packaging. A few of them include: 1) the now famous Sun Chips compostable bags, 2) Seattle’s new curbside composting program, 3) The GreenBox Pizza Box (a re-usable / recycled pizza box that’s gotten some great national attention), 4) Burgerville moving to compostable cups, 5) the TakeOutWithOut campaign… and that’s just mentioning a few.

    I’ve also seen the push toward compostable food packaging really take off over the past few years in California… particularly as cities across the state start enacting Styrofoam bans.

    Yes, we still have a ways to go, but it is re-assuring to see that progress is being made.

  9. 11 Designs permalink
    February 25, 2011

    Reusable mugs are not only environmentally friendly but also a source of inspiration for graphic artists, making it possible that these elements are a reflection of our personality and tastes. This is not possible with recyclable mugs. These have been some of the reasons that have led us to begin this initiative.

  10. james permalink
    August 9, 2011

    There are opinions in society, that fast food is not good for health. but if there has been no confirmation from the parties concerned, in my opinion it is just a mere rumor.

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